TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
Royal Sovereign Shoal
TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
Royal Sovereign Shoal
Somewhen ago, twas a fair night for foul folk and Owlers were up and about in the moonless sky minding their own business. It was the beginning of a week of ‘darks’ and many along the Sussex coast were running crops that night.
Things were not going well for all of the Free Trade Night-Fliers.
It was supposed to be a routine run for the crew of the Rottingdean based sky-skiff The Martlet – but fortune decreed otherwise.
There was always an edge of danger but this harvest of a crop of Picardy lace far out at sea shouldn’t have posed too much of a problem. The run took place thrice a year and was called the ‘Prentice Run’. It had been used for decades to teach Rottingdean younglings the ropes of Free Trade high up in the air – without too much exposure to risk in their early career as Night-Flier.
So much for that.
Alice grimaced, tucking a loose strand of her long dark hair behind her ear. Like the two other crew, Alice was dressed in men’s clothes: stout boots, sturdy breeches, and a fisherman’s long and thick smock. She also wore the battered old top hat she hated to be parted from.
Alice was twelve, the average age of most newly-fledged Free Trade apprentices. Yard Pilkin, the chief of the Rottingdean Collective, had been torn between his knowledge that Alice’s skirring skills were second to none and his worries that she could get hurt crewing The Martlet.
I thought Uncle Yard worried too much, but maybe he was right to worry.
A cannon spat out a harsh bark and Alice braced herself.
The old-timers always said: “There bain’t no point tryin’ to outrun shot if it’s got your name on it.”
The incoming shell didn’t have Alice’s name written on it, but her shipmate Bill wasn’t as lucky. The young fisherman exhaled a loud “OUF” when the shell struck his belly with a wet thud, tearing right through in a spray of blood and shredded gore.
Bill staggered backwards, the comic expression of surprise on his face a sharp contrast to the gory ruin of his midriff. A foul stench surrounded him. His musket thumped on the deck of The Martlet.
Time slowed down. Bill’s eyes, maddened by pain and incomprehension, focused on Alice. He stretched out an arm, his hand reaching for help, then clawing for support. Alice started to move toward him but it was too late. Bill issued a piercing shriek of agony as he stumbled backward against the railing, before tumbling over to disappear in the darkness between The Martlet and the sea.
Just like that, The Martlet was a hand down, leaving just Alice and the skipper, Hattie Tucknott. Fishmonger by day, the skipper was a formidable woman and one of Rottingdean’s most experienced Owlers.
A second cannon barked, but this time the shot narrowly missed the sky-skiff. Alice picked up Bill’s musket, snarling with horrified anger. Her unfortunate shipmate had just loaded it. It was an old-fashioned relic from the early Napoleonic wars. Alice stamped the foot of the musket on the deck, in case the musket ball had dislodged. She strained her arms lifting the heavy musket high, aiming at the darkness overhead to either side of The Martlet’s envelope, looking for Bill’s killers.
Whoever was up there had the confidence to skirr with all lights extinguished. It wasn’t a procedure practiced by either Coastguard or Royal Aero Fleet. Both services rarely sent their aeroships this far off the coast at any rate. In general, Rozzer aeronauts were capable but for the most part their minds were still land-bound. They were more at ease if their eyes, at least, could rest on land when their feet could not.
So, who the bloody hell is hunting us?
Alice strained her ears, trying to pick up the tell-tale sound of steam engines over the sound of The Martlet’s own engine, but to no avail. She couldn’t even hear the other Free Trade sky-skiff that was nearby, The Joseph Swaine out of Hastings.
The Hastings crew had moored alongside the French channel-runner – a big bellied cargo-brig – shortly after The Martlet had reached the rendezvous point high above the sea.
Both sky-skiffs had just completed transferring their crop of lace when the dark night had erupted with the flash and thunder of cannon fire. The sky-skiff crews had wasted no time in casting off and dashing for the coast.
We didn’t hear them coming. How?
“Liss!” Hattie Tucknott addressed Alice by her Free Trade code name, because they never used real names while Owling. “Put down the musket, you chuckle-headed scaddle . It’ll kick you like a mule and like as not break your shoulder.”
Alice reluctantly lowered the musket, but even as she did so a piercing flash of light stabbed at her eyes, followed by the rolling sound of a thunderous boom.
The channel-runner had taken the full brunt of the opening salvo by whatever had ambushed them. Alice recalled seeing flames licking up the masts and rigging of the Frenchman. The channel-runners must have opted for cheap, flammable gas in their envelope. The night turned as bright as day, while at the same time no doubt extinguishing the lives of the amiable and cheerful French crew.
Alice could now see The Joseph Swaine wasn’t far away, skirring north for the coast on a parallel course to The Martlet. An elongated shadow pursued them, some hundred feet higher. A sleek, black hull lashed so close to its darkened envelope that the two appeared fused into one. It spat fire at The Joseph Swaine. Two more of the shadowy predators hovered near a descending fireball, all that was left of the Frenchman. Scanning the upper wake of The Martlet, Alice spotted a fourth hunter much closer by, its conical bow aimed straight at The Martlet.
“Skipper! Rozzer astern!” Alice shouted, as the light that marked the fiery demise of the Frenchman started to diminish.
“Hang on! Sharp starboard.” Tucknott spun the helm and directed all power to the larboard propeller, working the steering vanes at the same time. Alice grabbed the railing with both hands. The sky-skiff veered to starboard. The hunter preying on them erupted into streaks of flame as it spat down more deadly shells, passing harmlessly through the space just vacated by The Martlet.
“Sounds like breech-loading Armstrongs,” Tucknott commented. “Nine-pounders.”
Still clutching the railing, Alice watched open-mouthed as their course diverged from the murderous Rozzer, which shot by overhead still heading for the coast. In the last dim glow of the now plummeting cargo-brig, Alice could see The Joseph Swaine mimicking The Martlet’s manoeuvre, veering sharply to starboard to leave her pursuer skirring north.
The night’s darkness returned.
Alice cocked her head and reached out with her thoughts. She didn’t need light because she couldn’t see the wind. It would be silly to assume that anyone could catch sight of flowing air with their eyes, unless rain, hail, or snow flurries gave it a temporary shape of sorts.
However, like her deceased father, Alice could perceive the wind nonetheless. It was granted to a rare few. For them it was as normal as eating, drinking, or sleeping – breathing even. Learning to master the gift had been a different matter, requiring a great deal of effort and her father’s patient guidance.
Alice’s skills as a Wind Reader, more than anything else, had been her trump card in convincing Uncle Yard to take her on as a Free Trader apprentice, even though she lived in Brighton now and not in Rottingdean anymore.
Alice’s mum had required convincing too, but had acknowledged the reality that a twelve-year-old had to learn a trade and work for a living – and most occupations open to a young slumgirl were equally, if not more dangerous.
There was a distant stutter, echoed from different directions as powerful steam engines hissed and thumped into life, multiple propellers rapidly accelerating to a steady hum. Alice couldn’t sense them but suspected the two coast-bound hunters would be changing course, turning east in pursuit of the sky-skiffs. There were two more of them out there as well, not far to starboard, bound to join the hunt.
Alice also found a suitable windshear. She told Tucknott, “Skipper, there’s an eastbound shear strong enough to carry us, not far out.”
Once sky-bound, a skipper’s word was law on an aeroship just as it was on sea-bound vessels. The sole exception was made in emergencies when there was a Wind Reader on board, even one as young as Alice. Tucknott had tested Alice’s abilities on previous – more serene runs – and didn’t hesitate. “Take the helm, Liss. I’ll lower the dorsals. Settle The Martlet on that shear. Your command.”
Alice took the helm behind the small pilot house near the stern. The skipper loosened the starboard and larboard dorsal booms amidships one by one. She swung them out and then worked the ropes to drop the dorsal sails so that these dipped below The Martlet’s hull, where they hung listlessly.
Alice gripped the helm and shut her eyes tightly, to better focus on the wind currents which shaped in her mind’s eye. Her dad had taught her to rely on those images, not to doubt them, and to resist the urge to open her eyes to try – in vain – to ascertain if she could confirm what her mind told her was there. That last was always the hardest part because trying to see with her eyes was instinctive.
“Dorsals are out,” Tucknott reported. “Is there time to swing out the torals?”
There was and the pectoral sails would add to The Martlet’s wind-powered performance. Something else was on Alice’s mind though. “Signal The Joseph Swaine to follow us first. Then the torals.”
Alice sensed Tucknott’s hesitation, rightly so. “I know, Skipper. The Rozzers might see our signal, but we can’t abandon the Chopbacks . They’re Sussex folk. Use the spouter.”
“Yarr, Cap’n,” Tucknott acknowledged.
That filled Alice with brief pride, which she banished to focus on the wind currents. She swallowed a sob when an unbidden image of Bill drifted to the fore of her mind, the surprise and pain in his eyes as he stumbled towards his fall, a gaping, bloody hole where his stomach had been.
Alice willed the image away and maneuvered The Martlet towards the eastbound windshear. The propeller controls in the small pilot house were much the same as on The Liddle Mew, the sky-skiff on which her father had trained her to operate the instrument panel blindly.
Her mind’s eye changed perspective, from The Martlet’s helm to a higher elevation astern of the sky-skiff. As usual, Alice felt a brief shock upon the first sight of her own physical self down on The Martlet below.
Alice’s hands automatically made minor adjustments to the instrument panel, so that The Martlet ascended fifty feet over the windshear.
Hattie Tucknott had lit the spout lantern, so-called because of its long spout with a glass bull’s eye in it. This device allowed for focused light flashes to be seen from limited positions, invisible to everyone not within close range of the narrow beam.
Aiming the spout in the direction of The Joseph Swaine’s last known position, Tucknott began to signal.
Wind Reader aboard. Follow.
When there was no response, Tucknott shifted the direction of the spouter somewhat, and repeated the signal.
Alice took a deap breath. The longer they signalled, the more chance that those predators would see and converge on The Martlet with their combined firepower at the ready. She already dreaded the decision – hers to make – that their own survival outweighed the safety of The Joseph Swaine, but they had to try at least.
Fortunately, upon Tucknott’s fourth signal, The Joseph Swaine flashed acknowledgement. Alice reduced propeller power to slow down The Martlet, now in perfect alignment with the windshear below.
Opening her eyes, Alice set the helm in fixed position and dashed to the bow to help Tucknott unfurl the toral sails by the bow. They were just finished when the dark shape of the Hastings sky-skiff appeared off their stern.
“Bethanks, you rotten Fishguts,” someone aboard The Joseph Swaine hollered.
“Kiss my stern bloody Chopbacks,” Tucknott shouted back. “Sails out. We’re going to shear-dip.”
“Shear-dip, aye-aye,” came the response, followed by frantic activity as the four Hastings crew members rushed about to release The Joseph Swaine’s dorsal and toral booms. One of the Hastings crew, to judge by size, was an apprentice just like Alice.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” Alice urged softly. She retook her position by the helm and closed her eyes again, taking The Martlet into a gentle descent.
Her mind’s eye provided only a vague awareness of the four predatory aeroships. Most of what she knew was that they were far too close for comfort. The Rozzers were also at a higher elevation, which would give them the high-alt advantage in a fight, but that would be one-sided in any case since the sky-skiff crews only had hand-weapons at their disposal.
“Liss, the Chopbacks are ready.”
“Ware the dip,” Alice warned, powering The Martlet down to the shear.
“WARE THE DIP!” Tucknott acknowledged at the top of her voice for the benefit of the Hastings Night-Fliers.
“Ware the dip!” the crew of The Joseph Swaine took up the call.
Alice de-powered the engine, leaving it to rumble and hiss softly, rather than deafeningly pumping its pistons.
Benefiting from Alice’s ability to visualise the shear, The Martlet dipped only slightly as its keel settled into the strong current of wind, the sails billowing out below. The Joseph Swaine’s dip was less elegant, it threatened to plunge through and the crew had to struggle to settle their hull on the shear.
With both sky-skiff engines reduced to soft grumbling and gurgling as the Free Traders switched from skirring to skicing , the nearby hunters grew louder and more menacing.
Alice shivered at the thought of the cannon barrels pointing out into the night, hungry for their next victim.
“Stealthy as she goes,” Tucknott reported. “Bettermost skirring, aeronaut.”
Alice allowed herself a brief smile at that but remained tense and focused. Windshears were by no means static and stable. Instead, they meandered across the sky like a river, slow and gentle here, rapid and agitated there, and all the while changing form and consistency. If the shear broke up or weakened to the extent that it could no longer support The Martlet, an instant response would be required to keep the sky-skiff from barrelling down towards the sea.
So far, the shear Alice had selected was a good one, strong and steady, allowing them to make considerable speed as they skiced east. It saved on fuel, as the sky-skiffs only carried a limited supply of coal to accommodate as much contraband as possible. Far more important, in their current predicament, wind-powered skicing offered the tactical advantage of near silent flight.
Free Traders were masters of stealth, be it on land, sea, or air. Ships or aeroships were blackened, as were sails and envelopes, making them nigh impossible to see even at close range on a moonless night. Sea-bound and sky-bound crew were forbidden to so much as light a pipe, for even the short-lived flame of a match could be seen from miles away out on, or over the sea. The crew could work confidently in complete darkness on both sea-bound and sky-bound ships, relying on their intimate knowledge of the vessel. Similarly, transferring a crop – even on a choppy sea or high up in a turbulent sky – was done blindly, where a single misstep could send a Free Trader making a fatal tumble between the hulls of two vessels.
Bright, moonlit nights were avoided. Conditions which any sane seaman or aeronaut would avoid if possible, be it thick fog or rough weather, were seen as perfect opportunities to run a crop. “It be a fair night for foul folk,” locals would say.
That limited the chance of being seen, but sound was a whole different matter. Small aeroships were the preferred Free Trade vessels. Sleek and light, their compact engines made far less noise than those of the larger vessels used by the Coastguard and Royal Aero Fleet. Nonetheless, skiff engines made noise, there was no such thing as a silent engine. It was a common occurrence for aeroship engines to drown out the auditory presence of other aeroships. One of the most common aviation tales told in taverns and aerodomes up and down the coast was of near misses: the sudden emergence of other vessels out of thick fog or cloud requiring immediate reaction to avoid collision.
Wind-powered flight, even for short stretches when turbulence prevented prolonged windshears, allowed Night-Fliers to pinpoint by ear the altitude and course of nearby Rozzer sky-sharks. That made outsmarting them far easier.
Alice focused on the four hunters. If they had been familiar to her, like Coastguard aero-cutters or Royal Aero Fleet brigs, or the sky-skiffs, wind-chasers, cloud-ketches, and aero-cutters preferred by Night-Fliers, she might have sensed their approach at the rendezvous with the channel-runner.
The hunters were present in her consciousness now, but with so much unknown about them, Alice only sensed their vague outline. Try as she might, a clearer picture remained elusive.
The four predators were behind the two sky-skiffs, still at higher altitude and spreading out to cast a wide net as they skirred eastward in pursuit.
The eastbound windshear the Free Traders were silently skicing would have carried them away from danger if the foe had been regular Rozzers. Would it work with these mysterious vessels as well? Alice knew too little about them. Where in the name of the Seven Sisters did the wolf pack of killers hail from?
One by one, the hunters cut their engines, the collective steady growl they had been producing diminishing…one…two…three…and then the last one.
Alice opened her eyes wide. It wasn’t the gradual fade caused by increased distance. They had cut their engines deliberately.
…but that means…
Alice recalled how their engines burst into life earlier and frowned. She should have connected the dots then.
…that’s how they managed to surprise us…but…
…if the strange craft were navigating in complete darkness with their engines shut down they were using wind power. The only way they could do this, exchanging wind for steam at night, was if they had Wind Readers on board.
Four of them!?
Alice and Tucknott exchanged a worried glance.
The silence was deafening in its utter completeness. Fortunately, the Hastings crew understood the new danger and kept quiet.
Alice adjusted The Martlet’s course as the shear bulged gently to larboard. The Joseph Swaine was quick to follow.
Tucknott walked up close and whispered. “Can their Wind Readers sense our presence?”
“Possibly,” Alice whispered back. “I can sense the Rozzer aeroships more clearly now, but if not – they can read the windshears and work out the ones likely to offer us a ride.”
“By Pize, that bain’t good.”
“Tis not.” Alice took a deep breath to fight rising tension within and gathered her courage to keep panic at bay. She had always assumed that stealth flight was an exclusive skill of sky-bound Free Traders, the most derring-do aerial adventurers in all of Britain. These four hunters, however, were displaying masterful control.
“All folk are afeared somewhen,” Ernest Willoughby, the Chief Constable of Brighton, had once told Alice. “It bain’t a bad thing, a dose of frit keeps you on your feet and deedy . Tis the balance, as in most things. Too much, and you paralyse yourself. Too little, and you become reckless, sureleye .”
Hearing his voice in her head was reassuring. Alice took a deep breath and focused on the hunters.
Sensing a change, Alice whispered, “they’re speeding up…one of them has detached from their formation…is ascending…the others are closing in on us…they’re skicing fast, Skipper, real fast.”
Free Trading ran in Alice’s blood and it went against her every instinct to issue her next – unavoidable but humiliating – command. She spoke it low, through clenched teeth. “Jettison the crop.”
Tucknott nodded her agreement, moved amidships and set about lifting the first of the waxed canvas bundles that held the precious lace. When she heaved the second one over The Martlet’s railing, the crew of The Joseph Swaine followed suit.
Alice focused on the shear, pressing the sky-skiff deeper into it to better utilise every square inch of their canvas spread. They began to pick up speed as Tucknott worked hard to lessen their load, but still the three hunters were gaining on them. The fourth had found a higher windshear and was riding it fast, beginning to overtake the sky-skiffs some three hundred feet overhead.
It will be in front of us soon.
It was a hunt, with three of the foes driving their prey to the waiting cannon muzzles of the fourth. Ahead, only death would await them.
TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
2. FREE FALLING
TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
2. FREE FALLING
Alice’s attention was drawn back to the three hunters in The Martlet’s upper wake.
Bright lights flashed with audible hisses and then formed steady beams which began to sweep through the night. Alice had seen gas-powered search lights before, their bright angular tentacles probing the night from land-based positions along the coast. It was much scarier this time, the lights closer by, the beams eager to find and light up the sky-skiffs.
“Goggles,” Tucknott said, putting her own goggles with darkened lenses on.
Alice slipped her goggles over her eyes. The search light beams had already diminished her night vision, but if The Martlet was caught in one of the beams the crew would be temporarily blinded precisely at a moment when every second counted.
The sweeping beams came ever closer as the hunters continued to gain on their quarry. Alice could hear the search lights hissing.
That sound will be much louder on their ships, they won’t hear us now.
“Skipper, we need to get off the shear,” Alice told Tucknott. “Fast. But we’re short crewed for an exit.”
“Let’s talk to the Chopbacks,” Tucknott suggested. “I counted four hands.”
The shear was relatively straight and stable for the next few hundred yards. Alice set the helm in fixed position and made to the stern railing, followed by Tucknott. The dark shape of The Joseph Swaine was close on The Martlet’s stern. Whoever was skirring her knew what they were doing.
Two of the Hastings crew came forward to their bow, one tall one and a short one – the other apprentice. Their faces appeared as pale smudges in the darkness.
“Ahoy, Chopbacks,” Alice shouted.
“One of them has overtaken us at high-alt,” Alice spoke urgently. “It’ll be waiting somewhere ahead.”
She didn’t have to explain the Rozzer would be waiting to turn on its searchlights to dazzle and blind the approaching sky-skiffs, followed soon enough by a salvo of shells, the three other hunters homing in astern.
“Pest!” The taller Chopback exclaimed. “What now?”
“Exit,” Alice replied. “Fall far, skirr low on the wind.”
“Aye-aye. Exit, fall far, skirr low on the wind.”
The safest way to leave a shear was to take off upwards, but a ‘lift’ was a slow gradual process which required time they didn’t have. The insane way to leave a shear was to ‘exit’, dropping right through the bottom and temporarily acquiring the skirring capacities of a ton of shingle.
Tucknott called out. “We’re a man down, could use an extra hand.”
“Unnerstood. Throw us a cable.”
Tucknott had one ready and cast it towards The Joseph Swaine, where it was deftly caught, then secured.
Another member of the Hastings crew came forwards. Without hesitation and with the remarkable dexterity and fearlessness of a Night-Flier, he hooked his arms and legs around the cable to then shimmy across the gap between the two sky-skiffs.
Alice helped the man aboard The Martlet. The apprentice on The Joseph Swaine cast off the cable which Tucknott began to haul in.
“Bethanks,” the Hastings man said to Tucknott. He sounded like a young man, but it was hard to tell in the dark. “Also for helping us lope away from those Rozzers. Free Traders call me Brock.”
“Free Traders call me Friar.” Tucknott replied. “Liss here gave the order. Feeling sorry for Chopbacks of all folks, tis unaccountable. She’s got a soft spot.”
“You’re the Wind Reader?” Brock asked Alice, astonishment and disbelief in his voice.
Alice rolled her eyes, exasperated as per usual with the dual assumptions that youngsters were about as useful as a treacle mine and a girl’s sole purpose was to stand around looking pretty.
“Mayhap your brain has gone stinkibut ,” she suggested.
“Mayhap,” Brock laughed, then sounded disarmingly sincere. “Bethanks, Liss Wind Reader, from the bottom of our stinkibut hearts.”
The beam that swept by overhead missed The Martlet but passed close enough to temporarily change the night into twilight long enough for Alice to confirm that Brock was in his twenties and had an open, honest face. It also reminded her there was no more time for scorsing pleasantries.
“Pare for exit,” Alice said. “Bring in the torals.”
“Aye-aye. Pare for exit,” Tucknott and Brock acknowledged in unison, before striding to the bow.
Alice returned to the helm and ignited the engine, setting it to idle. Powering the props up now was suicidal. Her dad had hammered that into her. Propellers didn’t work well in shears. Prop driven exits from windshears most often resulted in random ejection. Upside down or sideways up made no difference, the sheer force with which it happened could turn an aeroship inside out, shattering its physical structure into tens of thousands of fragments.
Tucknott and Brock hoisted up the toral sails, swung the toral booms alongside the railing, secured the furled sails, and then fastened the booms.
Bereft of the toral canvas, The Martlet began to slow down some, the handles of the helm shaking lightly in Alice’s hands. Tucknott and Brock moved amidships, where they split up to take position by the starboard and larboard dorsal booms.
Alice had only experienced two exits before, on The Liddle Mew. They had been terrifying experiences, but she had found comfort in the knowledge that her dad’s large hands had been at the helm. She wasn’t sure if she was able enough to direct The Martlet through an exit herself.
The sweeping search light beams, coming even closer, reminded Alice she had little choice in the matter. She’d be useless at the dorsal booms, lacking the physical strength of Tucknott and Brock.
Far ahead of them now, the fourth hunter re-started its idling engines. Switching to steam power allowed it optimal manoeuvrability, including the option to hover as it waited for the beaters to drive the prey into a kill-zone of gunfire. Its search lights hissed into life, the beams swiftly sweeping around as they sought to locate their quarry. The other bundles of beams behind them swept ever closer astern. It was a matter of minutes now.
You can do this. You told Mum and Uncle Yard you could. You promised them. ‘I can handle it’, you said, upset they doubted you. Now’s the time to prove it.
“Haul in the dorsals,” Alice shouted. “Ware the drop!”
“Aye-aye. Ware the drop!” Tucknott and the Hastings man heaved at their ropes to hoist up the dorsal sails.
“Ware the drop!” The words were repeated on The Joseph Swaine, which had drifted further back, to create more space for both sky-skiffs to exit.
When the dorsals were half way up, The Martlet’s ride on the shear became erratic. The slightest differentiations in the currents of the shear tugged the aeroship to larboard, then starboard. The sky-skiff began to tremble as she sank into the shear.
Soon the aeroship was shuddering. The helm tried to twist its way out of Alice’s hands with sudden jerks, jarring her hands as she struggled to retain control. Furling the exposed canvas of the dorsals became a struggle for Tucknott and Brock, and then a fight as the sails whipped violently to and fro.
Alice wrestled with the helm. Adjustments were needed, to prevent the sky-skiff slipping sideways from the shear, because that would send them plummeting down in a spin. Anticipating the wild movements of the vessel was one thing, countering them at the helm when the helm itself seemed to want to move in the opposite direction was another.
Alice clenched her jaws so as not to scream when the polished wood began to rub the skin off her palms and fingers.
Should’ve put on my gloves.
Tucknott and the Hastings man would be having just as rough a time of it, if not worse, from the ropes they were struggling to control. If anyone let go, of helm or cable, The Martlet would become uncontrollable.
The awful pitching stopped at last when the hull sank below the shear. For a fraction of a second all was calm, but then the aeroship jolted forwards, jerked in that direction by the envelope still within the shear. The masts creaked dangerously. Alice waited until the last of the dorsal sails were furled and the booms swung in. Then she adjusted the steering vanes to gently guide them down out of the shear altogether.
That was the easy bit. Now for the hard part.
“WARE FALL!” She hollered.
“Aye-aye. Ware fall!”
With the whole aeroship now out of the shear, The Martlet groaned and creaked as it shuddered to a much lower speed and – as expected – stalled.
Even an envelope filled with the best black-market gas was insufficient to keep afloat an unpowered sky-skiff caught in a stall. The Martlet began to sink through the air, faster and faster.
Above them, the first of the search lights swept its beam along the shear, right where they had been moments ago. Somewhere below them…the dark vastness of the sea.
Alice closed her eyes and reached out with her mind, directing it below The Martlet’s keel. She sensed the sea, seemingly rushing up to meet them. The Martlet started to lean forwards, its bow sinking and stern rising as it gathered speed.
That was good, but Alice now had to operate the instrument panel to direct the steering vanes to prevent the aeroship from pitching forward too much. If The Martlet followed its bow into a nose-dive…Alice shuddered.
Best not think of that.
Alice grimaced as her body started reacting to the increasingly rapid descent. Her innards seemed to be rising up and waves of queasiness threatened to overcome her. She struggled to keep contact with the sea, coming ever closer.
Time to take The Martlet out of the dive. Alice powered up the engines. The propellers began to spin.
Alice opened her eyes and slid the goggles off. They were far enough from the short-ranged beams of the search lights now. She didn’t want to perform the next task blindly, because she had to operate props and steering vanes continuously to level the aeroship. Ignoring the burning pain of her raw, blistered hands, Alice kept one hand on the helm while the other danced over the instrument panel.
The Martlet peeled out of its rapid descent, the bow inching upwards and the stern falling slowly as they began to level out. They were close enough to the sea to discern white-capped waves. Far above them, the four hunters continued on their set courses, the three beaters illuminating the vacated shear with their beams as they approached the fourth.
The Joseph Swaine wasn’t visible, but Alice sensed it nearby, arcing out of its own free-fall. The Hastings skipper had played it safer than Alice, levelling out fifty feet higher.
Alice set an eastbound course. She would have preferred to head west, towards the comparative safety of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters. None but the locals dared to skirt the cliffs there in a dance of aerial madness, but turning around now would cost precious time and speed. Moreover, skirring against the prevailing wind would exhaust their already diminished fuel supply.
We’ve come a long way east from the rendez-vous. Just how far exactly?
Tucknott and Brock approached the open pilot house.
“That was…” Brock said, awe in his voice. “Bettermost skirring, bettermost!”
“Not bad for a Brighton Jug,” Tucknott growled.
“I…” Alice tried to think of a suitable retort, but then she began to tremble. The tension that had steeled her through their ordeal began to flow out – flood out – seeming to take all her strength with it. Her hands screamed in pain, exhaustion threatened to overwhelm her. Her legs buckled and she swayed on her feet.
“Brock, take the helm.” Tucknott resumed command.
Brock did so immediately, leaving the skipper free to wrap her powerful arms around Alice, allowing the girl to slump against her.
Alice, comforted by the embrace, held back a sob.
“Liss,” Tucknott spoke urgently. “You’ve done a bettermost job, sureleye. Your old man now, he would have been bursting with pride, struck speechless even, a rare thing to be sure. Do you hear me?”
“Do you hear me, Free Trader?”
Taking a deep breath, Alice spoke, “Yarr, Cap’n.”
“Good. It bain’t over yetner. The Rozzers have just extinguished their search lights, I reckon they’ve figured out we made an exit. We dursn’t waste the head start you gave us. I need you, Liss, we all need you. Can you keep it together?”
Gathering her courage, Alice squirmed out of the embrace, much as she longed for its continued comfort, and nodded again. “Yarr, Cap’n.”
“You’re a bettermost aeronaut, now read the sky for me.” Tucknott said, before turning to Brock. “Bethanks Chopback, I’ll take the helm, I need you to stoke the boiler.”
High above them was nothing but darkness and four lethal hunters once more concealed by it. With their own engines running, The Martlet was too far from the four predators to hear if they were wind or steam-powered, although they did faintly detect The Joseph Swaine close by in their upper wake.
“Liss, get the spouter. Signal the Swaine.”
“Yarr, Cap’n. What message?”
“North. Full-speed. Run for the coast.” Tucknott paused before adding grimly, “Run like hell.”
TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
3. FLIGHT'S END
TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 1871
3. FLIGHT'S END
Only a few dim lights betrayed the coastline as they skirred toward it, making Alice wonder once again how far east they’d come. Old timers sometimes spoke nostalgically of the good old times when most of the coast had been concealed in darkness at night. A single candle in the window of a farmhouse or inn had sufficed to signal channel-runners out at sea. Some buildings had small windows that could only be seen from the sea, designed specifically for Free Trade purposes.
Alice herself was more familiar with the clusters of lights formed by the burgeoning seaside resorts along many parts of the coast. The night patterns of light made by Worthing, Shoreham, Hove, Brighton, and Kemp Town were as familiar as the stars in the sky, as were Newhaven and Seaford, or the constellations formed by Eastbourne and Hastings opposing each other across Pevensey Bay.
The land in front of them lay much lower than she was used to, unflanked by rising cliffs and not backdropped by the Downs. Apart from one modest cluster of lights, the other illuminations were few and far between.
The Martlet’s engine and propellers made it impossible to hear what the four Rozzers were up to. Steam-powered to manoeuvre? Or prowling shears in stealth mode?
Alice sighed with relief when they reached the bank of fog which was forming between them and the coastline. It wasn’t particularly dense, rising just high enough to conceal their envelope, and then only for as long as the skipper kept The Martlet’s keel dangerously low, practically skimming over the sea. Nonetheless, there was comfort in the concealment offered by the mist.
Brock emerged from the low engine house and took place by Tucknott’s side at the helm.
“Liss.” Tucknott said.
“Take watch by the bow if you please. Let me know if you can sense the land, or otherwhile see it. We don’t want to go barrelling into the side of a farmhouse or a copse of trees, do we?”
“Yarr, but, where are we?” Alice wondered.
“Romney Marsh,” Brock answered, sounding unhappy.
“There be Free Traders there!” Alice exclaimed.
She had heard stories of the Romney Marsh Owlers. Everybody in Sussex had. Marsh folk were said to be proper Willicks – fierce wildlings. “Mayhap they’ll help us.”
Brock disagreed. “I dursn’t say that we’d be welcomed by the Mudlarks, all the more if we’re seen to be drawin’ Rozzers their way.”
“Oh.” Alice was unable to keep disappointment out of her voice.
Tucknott said, “Marsh folk keep to themselves, Liss. Secretive and wary of furriners, which to them be anyone what doesn’t lark about in their muddy mushlands and tidal salts. Now to your station Night-Flier.”
Alice went toward the bow. Her hands hurt terribly but to her surprise her whole body was aching badly. She supposed it was because of tension, which was beginning to ebb away now that they were concealed in the fog and rapidly approaching land.
It had been a narrow escape, Alice reckoned. She wasn’t entirely sure. There had been hairy moments on previous runs she had participated in. Hawk and starling games with the Royal Aero Fleet high up in the clouds, but no shots had been fired then. Her main reference consisted of Free Trade tales, but most of those were told with such relish that Alice was never quite sure if the stories were true or made up.
Alice reprimanded herself when she reached The Martlet’s bow. She was supposed to be channelling her focus at the land ahead of them, and the sky above. Getting lost in her thoughts at a time like this was more chuckle-headed than a patrolling Rozzer land-shark tumbling off the cliff tops at night. She had to—
The only warning they had was the ignition of a bundle of beams to starboard, then to larboard. Engines thudded into roars, the sound overpowering The Martlet’s own engine because the Rozzers were that close. A third set of beams were lit farther away. The fourth Rozzer appeared right over The Martlet and it too ignited its search lights.
The beams were clouded by the fog but penetrated straight through nonetheless, revealing a stretch of sand below.
The beam that instantly encompassed The Martlet was prevented from entirely blinding the crew by the sky-skiff’s inflated envelope, but the Rozzer’s other beams now came sweeping in. Below the sand was replaced by wetlands. Someone barked harsh orders in a language Alice didn’t understand.
She understood all too well what happened next when the Rozzers unleashed a hitherto concealed part of their arsenal. The rapid stutter that thudded in her heart like a lethal echo was a sound from her worst dreams and the cruellest of memories. The Rozzers had a Gatling gun.
It was just the one but shooting ten 50mm rounds a second was more than enough. The hail of bullets tore through the back half of the envelope, shredding it with ease before peppering The Martlet’s stern. Splinters fountained from the deck. Tucknott and Brock’s bodies jerked and shuddered, as if directed by a drunk marionette player. They sank down to the deck, their bodies continuing to spasm in a grotesque dance choreographed by the Gatling.
Something ruptured in the low engine room at the stern, there was a muffled boom which blew the engine house door straight off its hinges, followed by metallic shrieks and then furious hissing as vents of boiling steam erupted from the engine house. The larboard propeller was hit by a stream of bullets, disintegrating into a shower of splinters that were flung every which way. One such splinter grazed Alice’s cheek, drawing blood, others struck her smock and breeches.
The Martlet veered to larboard, the deck tilting sharply as the aeroship plunged downward. Another aeroship came barrelling down from above, trailing screams and flames. It was The Joseph Swaine, envelope shredded and stern enveloped by fire so intense Alice felt its heat on her face. One of the crew members floundered about on the deck, arms outstretched, upper torso entirely encased in flames. The burning sky-skiff was followed by one of the other hunters.
The two sky-skiffs were going to collide. Alice reached out to grasp the railing, but The Martlet began to roll over and Alice slid down the now near-vertical deck to slam hard and painfully against the larboard railing.
The Gatling guns of the two hunters continued to hammer the stricken sky-skiffs.
The Joseph Swaine’s bowsprit splintered when it struck The Martlet’s keel amidships but the rest of the bow crashed through The Martlet’s hull. The shockwave of the impact sent Alice tumbling overboard…falling…
The sky-skiffs disappeared in an explosion of noise, flames, splinters, water, and mud.
…Alice braced herself for a bone-breaking encounter with the ground, but she landed into something cold and wet instead, a tidal channel half-filled with seawater.
The force of her landing thrust her face hard into cloying mud. Alice gagged as her mouth filled with the filthy stuff, smelling and tasting of decomposition. Coughing, she thrashed out with her arms. Her blistered hands found pollens of grass, and despite the intense pain she held on to them with all her might, and then pulled herself out of the channel, to scramble onto more solid ground.
Gasping for breath, pummelled by pain and dulled by shock, Alice collapsed into a dejected heap, illuminated by the blazing wreckage of The Martlet and The Joseph Swaine.
Liking Alice Kittyhawk? There are two novellas preceding Fair Night for Foul Folk that may interest you, available as paperback or Kindle.